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By April Walker, nonprofit executive leader

I have experienced my share of policing at the hands of colleagues and managers. It manifests in ways bold and slippery, through commentary on my vocabulary, through dismissiveness, through reminders for me to stay in my place. And I am hardly alone.

On April 20, 2021, I waited stoically in front of my television for the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd. The minutes were long and unsure, laced with hope for Mr. Floyd’s family and exhaustion from our country’s apathy. 

Upon hearing the guilty verdict, my heart did not quite know how to beat. 

I was happy, but not. Relieved, yet melancholy. 

Justice simply felt unjust. More than anything, the verdict reminded me that I feel policed in my everyday life, in a sector that I joined in order to serve a greater good. It reminded me I feel policed because of the ways anti-Blackness shows up in the nonprofit sector, how it informs policies, determines who enters the leadership pipeline, and shapes decision making power. 

Today, Black women in the nonprofit realm constantly face spoken and unspoken rules on how to present our bodies, our voices, and our aspirations. This new kind of policing is unlike the respectability politics of old — the politics that would have you believe that advanced degrees and a business suit can keep you safe from harm. This new type of policing problematizes however we show up. It makes an issue of our joy, our bodies, our intellect, and our work ethic. 

I have experienced my share of policing at the hands of colleagues and managers. It manifests in ways bold and slippery, through commentary on my vocabulary, through dismissiveness, through reminders for me to stay in my place. And I am hardly alone. 

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has documented the ways Black leaders feel isolated and navigate “racially fraught power dynamics.” 

At the intersection of philanthropy and leadership is a sector that expects Black professionals —  women especially — to shrink and accept the status quo. 

But our lived experiences are actually intersectional and compounding — and they will be among the greatest measures of progress towards a nonprofit sector that addresses systemic inequities with the same gumption that it wordsmiths statements of support. 

Here are some experiences I gathered from my peers — all Black women — on the myriad ways anti-Blackness has shown up for them at work — as well as their wisdom and strategies for thriving in spite of it all.   

Your joy is too loud.”

My friend Dominique is a millennial fundraiser to watch. She is a dynamic event planner in Boston with expertise helping nonprofits engage millennials of color. This experience with being silenced nearly led her to choose a different career path. Fortunately for the sector, Dominique is still here, still raising money for worthy causes, and still spreading joy. 

“Early in my career I worked as a development coordinator at a school,”said Dominique. “It felt like anything I did was under complete scrutiny. My supervisor would hear me talking and would come into my office to tell me, ‘You sound like you’re having too much fun.’ How does my joy make it seem like I’m not working? Why was laughter and smiling only reserved for her conversations? The same energy I brought into work was the same way I showed up in my interview, as a proud Black woman. We were fundraising for a school of primarily Latinx and Black girls so her silencing my joy was a missed opportunity to authentically engage with students and to have donor relationships that were not performative or scripted. Isn’t that the point?”

“Let’s soften your look.”

There is only one Kishshana. She is a philanthropic fairy godmother to many and an inspiration to all. The New York-based fundraising extraordinaire and nonprofit consultant curates safe spaces for Black and brown development professionals. This experience having her body policed is one of many she could have divulged, and it only begins to scratch the surface of how Black bodies are surveilled in the workplace. 

“The way I look has been policed for as long as I can remember,” Kishshana told me. “From very early in my career, I have been told I am too colorful, too manly, too sharp, a bit too much. When I lived in the South, one of my subordinates invited me to lunch to tell me that if I wanted to be successful raising money, I needed to ‘do some things differently.’ She advised that I buy myself small diamonds, pearls, and lower-than-knee length skirts to appear ‘more likeable, approachable, feminine, and soft.’ According to her, I already had such a strong personality and would be seen as too aggressive. Since then, I have gone on to raise over $100 million for nonprofits. I made the decision to live in color and embrace the way I show up in this body, in this world.” 

“Leadership isn’t for you.” 

My colleague Melony empowers thousands of women throughout Cleveland to achieve economic independence. She is a visionary who never hesitates to dream big, for herself or for others. Melony’s journey to become a nonprofit executive director, at an organization where she was once a client, lays bare the nuances of leadership within a sector that is slow, if not outright resistant, to promote Black women to positions of power. 

“Even after eight years working at a nonprofit, I was very aware that I was not on a management track,” Melony said. “Any kind of development or training I wanted, I had to make the investment myself. I watched the organization provide training for others but there was no plan or path for me. When I eventually applied for a leadership position anyway, I was told ‘You are really good but [this role] is too big of a jump for someone like you.’ I have been in leadership for 11 years, and even still, the people who are prepared to critique me far outnumber those who are willing to empower me.” 

We have to self-police to survive.

Maria, my sister in fundraising, has a clarity of purpose that is contagious. She moves with intention, in a down-to-earth way that disarms all pretense. A professional fundraiser in New York for more than 15 years, Maria’s experience within the nonprofit realm underscores how help and harm coexist within this ecosystem. 

“A lot of the policing that I have done to myself has been for my survival. I adopted coping mechanisms — changing my speech, withholding questions, making others comfortable, not discussing politics — to simply exist in nonprofit spaces. I would love to see Black women check our internalized need to self-police. We carry it in our bodies. We are tense. We are not able to take deep breaths, to get oxygen in our lungs. The proverbial knees are on our necks all day.”

What all of these stories make plain is a truth we all carry —that every moment is not teachable. It’s not that we have just encountered a few bad actors. It’s that we exist in spaces that believe our joy is in contention with our productivity, spaces that would sooner dim our lights than invest in our development. 

Black women in philanthropy have to press ahead in a sector “where the percentage of people of color in the executive director/CEO role has remained under 20% for the last 15 years.” We press ahead while the mainstream discourse spins its wheels debating whether our country is racist. We press ahead so the generation of nonprofit leaders behind us can know inclusion in the workplace in practice, not just theory. 

APRIL WALKER

APRIL WALKER

April Walker (she/her) is nonprofit leader and fundraising professional. Her career in philanthropy spans seven years and includes fundraising, consulting, and grantmaking positions at the American Heart Association, the Boys & Girls Clubs of ChicagoCCS FundraisingVNA Foundation, and Iris Krieg & Associates, a Chicago-based philanthropic advisory firm. Born and raised in Baltimore, April’s background in social service administration informs her commitment to advancing philanthropy rooted in racial equity and social justice. She currently serves as chief development officer for a workforce development nonprofit in Cleveland, Ohio and is a member of the Association of Fundraising Professionals Greater Cleveland Chapter. She also serves on the boards of Progressive Arts Alliance and the Akron Community Foundation’s Gay Community Endowment Fund. Connect with her via LinkedIn or by email.

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